19 June, 2024

A Study of Alexander Campbell (Part 2)

by | 19 November, 2020 | 1 comment

Click here to read Part 1.

And now, part 2 of John L. Morrison’s series on Alexander Campbell from 1967. (At the end of this article are download links to all four parts of this series from 1967.)

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A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Fact and logic carried conviction in the preaching of Alexander Campbell

Second of four parts

By John L. Morrison
Dec. 16, 1967; p. 5

III. The Preaching

HOW did Campbell’s contemporaries respond to his preaching?

[Robert Frederick] West maintains that Campbell’s “satire, irony, simplicity of speech, and the analogy of kingcraft and priestcraft were choice weapons which he used to arouse the frontier folk of the Jacksonian era of American democracy.”(1)

Campbell suspected his satirical vein and, according to [Robert] Richardson, often read his manuscripts to Mrs. Selma Campbell to rid them of some of their harshness. Richardson reported that Campbell discontinued The Christian Baptist in 1829 and started publishing The Millennial Harbinger partially because he preferred a milder-toned chronicle. The Christian Baptist had been designed to awaken the Christian world to the evil of clerical despotism, ecclesiasticism, and all their attendant evils. The Millennial Harbinger was slanted toward showing “the incompatibility of any sectarian establishment, now known on earth, with the genius of the glorious age to come.”(2) Although highly opinionated, Campbell was not an inflexible dogmatist. He could and did bend with the times.

Campbell’s contemporaries—friend and foe alike—unanimously acknowledged his public speaking ability. At the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, ex­President Madison said of Campbell’s preaching: “It was my pleasure to hear him very often as a preacher of the gospel, and I regard him as the ablest and most original expounder of the scriptures I have ever heard.”(3)

When Campbell preached, he minimized enthusiasm and emphasized logic. He seldom appealed to pathos or tenderness but, as his contemporaries put it, “He was clear.”(4) His Biblical mastery and literary knowledge commanded the respect of all. Moses Lard judged Campbell “a fine scholar, but not a profound one.”(5) The dry, factual style in which he both wrote and spoke prompted Lard to complain: “He never vivified them [facts], and made them sparkle with the bright light of genius as they left his hand.” Lard regretted that Campbell often “seemed to invest his efforts, whether written or spoken, with the appearance of the poetic and imaginative. But he has left us hardly a genuine trace of either upon record.”(6) Lard supposed that if Campbell had written biographical history, he “would have shown . . . men’s faces; but they would have been the expressionless faces of men as seen beneath the coffin lid.”(7) In spite of this shortcoming—perhaps because of it—Campbell’s journalism and public speaking appealed to the eyes and ears of a sizeable audience enamored with his unpoetic efforts.

The factualness of Campbell’s preaching portended a historical, not philosophical, emphasis. This is in part correct. He believed history the most important of all disciplines—“first in order because it was first in importance.” Believing that “the knowledge of facts is the most useful of all knowledge” and that the Bible “is the only authentic history in the world of almost half its existence,”(8) Campbell made a good case for history’s primacy. His sermons and lectures were often historically ordered and so freighted with historical allusions that they could hardly have been as “popular” as he intended them. Robert Owen’s survival through Campbell’s historical wanderings during his “long speech” in the “Great Debate” redounds to Owen’s good humor and endurance.

The Pulpit

Campbell’s view of the clergy greatly affected his views on preaching. The pulpit did not belong to the clergy. According to Campbell, the claims of power of the clergy were no less unbiblical than their titled names, Reverend or Doctor. A person needed no special call to preach the gospel, thus no special title. The call to preach came through the gospel as contained in the Bible, and was instrumentally effected by a local congregation (or a denomination) in conjunction with the individual’s desires and qualifications. Ministers were fallible people who differed from others only in the extent of their Christian work, not in the kind of work done. As Campbell put it: “In short there is no need to have men among us professing to be ‘called and sent of God.’”(9) Campbell believed in a literal priesthood of believers.

Although Campbell wished the full­time ministry to be well educated, he believed the seminarial approach ill-advised. He was convinced that something artificial happened to the speaking style of seminary students which other professionally inclined graduates escaped. He complained:

. . . My young priest gradually assumes a sanctimonious air, a holy gloom overspreads his face and pious sedateness reigns from his eyebrows to his chin. . . . With his Sunday coat on a Sabbath morn, he puts on a mantle of deeper sanctity, and imperceptibly learns the three grand tones—the Sabbath tone, the pulpit tone, and the praying tone—these are the devout, the more devout, and the most devout.(10)

Campbell thrust home his rapier of disdain by concluding that “one hundred such students of divinity” were not worth much. He concluded that “one Benjamite with his sling and stone would put a thousand such to flight.”(11)

The Bible

A good Benjamite with his sling and stone was armed—above all else but not to the exclusion of everything else—with Biblical knowledge. Campbell’s first sermon delivered in 1810 was an exposition of Matthew 7:24-27, the parable of the man who either builds unwisely on the sand or wisely upon the rock. Campbell was said to have exercised those analytical powers that he would wield with such force throughout his lifetime. Given to little gesticulation and to simplicity of language, he evoked a positive response. According to Richardson, many thought him immediately a better preacher than his father.

But he was not only the Bible’s expounder; he was its advocate. On one occasion, while visiting in Cincinnati, Campbell had addressed the Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association. Dr. Herman Humphrey, former president of Amherst College, listened in the audience and later wrote in the New York Observer that

Dr. Campbell’s first discourse was an exceedingly interesting eulogy, if I may so call it, upon the Bible, glancing rapidly at some of the internal proofs of its divine origin, dwelling as much as his time would allow upon its wonderful history, biography and prophecies . . . (12)

Dr. Humphrey further described Campbell as “the most perfectly self-possessed, the most perfectly at ease in the pulpit of any preacher I ever listened to, except, perhaps, the celebrated Dr. John Mason of New York.”

Campbell’s views on the nature and function of the Bible greatly affected the character of his theology, and, consequently, his preaching. Although the Bible contained the revelation of God, everything in the Bible was not revelation, but all the Bible was inspired, that is, “divinely authenticated.”(13) Not all that was inspired could be urged upon man as revelation; in fact, because of Campbell’s dispensationalism, not all revelation, though inspired, was obligatory upon man. Campbell remonstrated with those who would put the yoke of Jewish law, obviously inspired and revealed, upon Christians.

Campbell avoided a literal or mechanical view of inspiration wherein the writer transcribed exact dictation given by the Holy Spirit, and he also avoided the plenary view of inspiration wherein the total content, but not style or words, was inspired. The Bible, therefore, blended elements both human and divine, but it was not man who determined the blending; it was the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

Campbell’s view concerning the influence of the Holy Spirit upon the individual was intended never to contradict the Bible. Since the Holy Spirit always worked with the Scripture, not beyond or in opposition to it, the study of the Bible became imperative for the Christian, especially the preacher. What might appear to be the leading of the Holy Spirit could not be ascertained short of an empirical base against which to judge the leading; that base was the Bible. Therefore, one’s personal experience did not determine the meaning of the Scriptures; instead, the Scriptures’ meaning determined the validity of the experience.

Since metaphysical regeneration, according to Campbell, was not infused in the heart upon conversion, it was the person’s obligation to know the Scriptures both before and after conversion. Since the Holy Spirit indwelled the individual after conversion, it could assist him through its empowering influence to act correctly, if the person knew what correct behavior was; or, upon having had some apparent religious experience, the validity of the experience could be checked against Biblical standards. In either case, the objective revelation was superior to the untutored subjective judgment. The preacher, therefore, had to study the Scriptures; he could not rely upon the Holy Spirit to reveal its truth directly to him in any mystical manner. Biblical knowledge was acquired by the same means as any other kind of knowledge.


The nature and source of Campbell’s theory of knowledge, then, had some bearing upon his views on preaching. He held that all knowledge had its origin in experience. Ideas in the mind came via the senses. Having accepted this essentially Lockean, empirical doctrine and having denied intuitive knowledge (be it Platonic, Plotinian, or Kantian), the idea of God, for instance, though supernatural in origin, had to come into the mind via the senses, Campbell insisted. In the Campbell-Owen debate, which made Campbell famous on the frontier, he asked Owen, the English industrialist, materialist, and Utopian reformer, to agree that anything known came through the five senses. Owen agreed. Although believing in a God, Owen asserted that Divinity had not given any revelation to man. Whereupon Campbell questioned how one could have knowledge (or an idea) about God when God had never been seen, heard, tasted, felt, nor smelled. Campbell posed the skeptic’s dilemma in this manner:

The Christian idea of an Eternal First Cause uncaused, or of a God, is now in the world, and has been for ages immemorial. You say it could not enter into the world by reason, and [you say] it did not enter by revelation. Now, as you are philosophers and historians, and have all the means of knowing, How did it come into the world?”

[Winfred E.] Garrison stated the problem this way:

Granted that we can have no natural knowledge or idea of God, it is nevertheless true that we actually do have such an idea. Our ideas of spiritual things are facts to be explained. They must have a cause and that cause, since it cannot be the natural reason, must be divine revelation.(15)

Campbell held that the world was the effect of God; but one really could not know this to be true apart from revelation. He concluded that:

To require us, then, to know a designer, in order to the proving of a design, is to require us to know a matter which is to be proved, that we may prove the evidences by which we are to prove itself [sic]!

To make a designer the proof of design, is absurdity itself. How can we know a designer? By looking into his cranium, and seeing his thoughts?(16)

His answer was an emphatic “no.” One had knowledge of God by “observing his outward manifestations of mind.” These manifestations, the things He had said and done, told man of God because revelation confirmed that God existed.

In short, the preacher should transmit revealed knowledge: it was in the Bible, the depository of all spiritual ideas available to man. The responsibility of the preacher was to relate these ideas logically and accurately to the listener. The Holy Spirit did not directly operate on the listener’s mind during preaching, but the preacher did!


Mr. Morrison is a member of the faculty of San Jose Bible College, San Jose, California.

Image: A postcard from about 1930-45 featuring an image of Alexander Campbell; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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1 Robert Frederick West, Alexander Campbell and Natural Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 9.

2 Millennial Harbinger (Bethany, Virginia), 1830, p. 1.

3 Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1897), vol. ii, p. 313.

4 Moses E. Lard, editor, Lard’s Quarterly, vol. iii ( Lexington, Kentucky, 1866), p. 258.

5 Ibid., p. 26.

6 Ibid., p. 259.

7 Ibid., p. 258.

8 Millennial Harbinger, 1845, p. 320.

9 Alexander Campbell, editor, Christian Baptist, 1823, pp. 49-56.

10 Ibid., p. 106.

11 Christian Baptist, 1824, pp. 6-10.

12 Richardson, op. cit., p. 582

13 Campbell-Owen Debate (Bethany: Alexander Campbell, 1829), p. 381.

14 Ibid., p. 123.

15 Winfred E. Garrison, The Sources of Alexander Campbell’s Theology (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1900), p. 191.

16 Millennial Harbinger, 1831, p. 149.

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You can access/download the entire four-part series by clicking on the links below.









(If you have problems downloading these, contact me at [email protected] and I will email them to you. —JN)

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Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

1 Comment

  1. Larry E Whittington

    I wonder if anything any of us say or write will be read and reviewed at any later date for any learning or for gaining knowledge or insight into into our own thinking or the thinking (thoughts) of God.

    We are so small and insignificant.

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